The writer’s archaic shorthand has baffled experts for over a century. So they launched a deciphering competition for fans – with stunning results that cast new light on his love life and financial peril

Despite all the precision he brought to bear on his intricate plots, Charles Dickens was a notoriously messy writer. His manuscripts are full of inky splodges, with barely legible alterations crammed in between scrawled, sloping lines. Worse still was his love of a type of shorthand dating from the 1700s. To this, he added his own chaotic modifications to create what he called “the devil’s handwriting”.

Fond of puzzles and codes, the great Victorian writer used these time-saving hieroglyphics to make notes and copies of his letters and documents, reams of which he burned. Academics are still toiling to decipher 10 shorthand manuscripts that survived. Forget Wordle. This is the Dickens Code. And for a long time, it had seemed uncrackable.

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